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The Fifth Column:
Infrequently Asked Questions By Dwayne McDuffie
A few weeks ago, I asked you guys to tell me what you’d like me to cover in a future Frequently Asked Questions column. Among your responses was a particularly well thought out query, asking about the tempest over Marvel’s current CAGE series (if you don’t know, a disproportionate number of black readers are livid over it). The e-mail extended the issue to encompass the lack of black writers and editors in the industry. I’ve been working on my response for several weeks now (somewhat publicly, if you have AOL and ever drop by their WARRIORS OF COLOR message board) but the column that follows, which began its life as a post to that board, has raised the bar I’ll have to hit considerably. So with the kind permission of the author (and a promise that I’ll be taking on these issues myself in weeks to come) here’s her post, in full.
And Everything Old Is New Again...
--A Guest Column By DigiFemme
"I like how you made Cage more black."
This phrase was uttered by some dazzled fan as I stood in line flipping though the artwork of the fabulous Lee Bermejo during this weekend's Big Apple Comic Convention. You see, Brian Azzarello, writer of the recent Cage miniseries, was seated right next to Bermejo. And I had the unfortunate luck to be standing next to a fan gushing over Mr. Azzarello. For a moment, I had to stop flipping though the beautiful pages in my hand to pause and roll my eyes before the blood vessels within them burst and leaked crimson all over the black and white images. Had this idiot really managed to say something so blatantly insulting within earshot of this black woman who was standing right next to him? No. No one could really be that stupid. I had to be wrong. Please. Tell me I heard wrong. Please.
"Well, I tried…"
That was beginning of Mr. Azzarello's response. I can't tell you the rest. Why? Because the elevator music that goes on in my head whenever I have the impulse to do anything even remotely violent immediately drowned him out and calmed me down.
So what kept me from verbally abusing this idiot fan and leaping across the table to pounce on top of Azzarello and shake him until brain damage set in?
I hadn't read the book.
I tried to. I really did. Yet I honestly could not bring myself to purchase it. I couldn't even bring myself to pick it up and read it in the store. I stood in Midtown Comics (The BEST store in NY) and stared at the comic for a minute or two, thoroughly disappointed by the cover alone. The Black Man reduced to nothing more than body parts—defined only by his flesh. A fist here…a muscular torso there. It repelled me. Hell, even D'Angelo got to show his beautiful face.
And to be honest, the only reason I saw the cover is because Midtown displays its comics alphabetically instead of by company as my old store did. This means that I can't skip over seventy percent of the store and settle happily in the dark little corner that is Manga/non-Image independent/DC-satellite world. And as much as I love Midtown, this set up does irritate me a little. Why should I have to rifle through books by companies that I have no interest in and who do not court me as a reader? They ignore me and I should be able to ignore them. Though I suppose if I owned a comic shop, I'd want my customers exposed to as many comics as possible too. But I digress.
So, as my mother would say in her pseudo-Southern drawl, "What is the point, Miss Cheryl?"
The point is that I am hurt. I'm angry. I'm upset.
Am I angry with Brian Azzarello? Actually, I'm not. It isn't a writer's job to be morally or socially responsible. It's a writer's job to tell an entertaining yarn. Period. It isn't a writer's task to change the world for the better. If he or she does? Great. However, the primary goal is to tell a story.
Am I angry with Marvel? Surprisingly, I'm not. Marvel is a business geared towards selling as many comics as possible. Neo-Blaxploitation is a theme that sells remarkably well. Why shouldn't I expect Marvel to use this theme to sell comics? If television stations, record companies, and movie studios can abuse this theme to make a profit, why shouldn't a comic company be able to do so as well? Why should Marvel have to be morally and socially responsible when a horde of other companies aren't?
So, who am I angry with?
I'm angry with them because they, like the fan gushing over Brian Azzarello, are too unbelievably stupid to separate the stereotype from the reality. They actually believe that Luke Cage defines "blackness". They believe that the Cash Money Millionaires define "blackness". Do you realize how absolutely terrifying it is to be defined by a stereotype? Do you realize what kind of damage this does emotionally to a group of people? I wholeheartedly envy the ability of white people to enjoy their stereotypes and not be defined by them.
What do I mean?
I'll be honest and shed my political correctness for a minute. I believe that stereotypes, when stripped of their ability to harm, can be interesting and humorous. For example, I am utterly amused by the "big dumb blonde white girl" stereotype. Pamela Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, Chrissy Snow, Anna Nicole Smith--they all entertain me to no end. I adore them. Yet as I fall over laughing at an episode of V.I.P. or an old Three's Company episode, I am well aware that these goofy girls do not define what it means to be a white woman. Can you imagine if American citizens thought that all white women were like Vallery Irons? Yet this fan (as I'm sure many others do) believes that Azzarello's incarnation of Cage defines what it is like to be a black man. Absolutely terrifying.
So why are American citizens walking around with blinders? Why are they unable to separate between stereotype and reality where black men are concerned?
To answer that, I have to go back to my "big dumb blonde" stereotype. You see, there are many "big smart blondes" to counteract this image. And they are visible to and are adored by an amazingly large mainstream audience on a regular basis. Pamela Anderson may be on your television screen for an hour once a week…but so are Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.
Unfortunately, changing America's perception of black men isn't going to be as easy as giving Tavis Smiley a talk show on ABC. We're talking about over two centuries of propaganda to overcome. However, introducing positive mainstream portrayals of Black men in sizable numbers is a wonderful start.
Now I'm sure people will start whining…
"Does this mean we can't show black men in a negative light? Unfair! Black people come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. I want to write my black characters as jerks. How dare you try to rob me of my right to do so! Reverse discrimination! Censorship!"
Let me explain. Black men are already shown in a negative light in the media--in overwhelming and disproportionate numbers. What I'm proposing will only bring balance to the scales, not tip them in the opposite direction. I'm just asking that black men get the same respect that other people already enjoy. That's all.
So how do we get to the point where the mainstream media presents us with a diverse selection of black men ranging from positive to negative portrayals in equal numbers?
Man, there are going to be a lot of people who won't like this…
The answer? Hire a wide spectrum of black men to create a wide spectrum of stories for mainstream America. Note the emphasis on "wide spectrum" and "mainstream America". After all, a television station can hire a whole slew of black male writers, but if the station demands that they all write Booty Call: The TV Series? Let's just say that progress wouldn't really be made.
And that's a major problem. There are black men who aren't telling the stories they want to tell. Instead, they are telling the stories that will get them hired. And often these stories are insulting to black men.
Side Info: After the convention, I stopped by my grandmother's house for the first time in weeks. Because it was getting dark, my cousin later offered to walk me home. He happily showed me the cover art for his new single (He's a rap artist) and told me that he was going to produce and distribute the CD himself. This seemed ridiculous to me, since he had solid club dates lined up and a record company interested in his work.
Unfortunately, his meeting with Atlantic Records didn't go over too well. The AR rep listened to his demo, grinned, and said…
"This is fantastic, but do you have anything more commercial?"
Translation: Can you put these platinum teeth in your mouth and rap about the Escalade that we'll rent for your first video? Oh, and by the way, wave this gun around and be sure to squeeze the buttocks of these fabulous hoochies we've also purchased the use of for the day.
And even as I sit here writing this, I have to admit that my cousin was brave enough and patient enough to do something I would never do. He walked away and decided to do it on his own. He refused to change his image or the songs he had written. Would I have been angry enough to flip Atlantic the bird and walk away? Hell, yes. Would I have been patient enough or hopeful enough to believe that I could infiltrate the mainstream though the independent route? Hell, no.
But I'm cynical and jaded. He's not. I still hope like hell that he'll prove me wrong and I'll see him on MTV or BET right between the Cristal-drinking Jay-Z and Ja Rule, exploiter of women.
"Wait! What's with all this hiring black guys stuff? Are you saying that now people who aren't black aren't even allowed to write stories about black people at all? What are you, some kind of racist?"
Dear God, no! I think that writers of any background should be able to tell stories about all types of black people if they choose to do so. Hell, Alan Moore could probably tell my life story better than I could.
"So what are you saying?"
I'm saying that when black men are denied a voice in the mainstream, or are only allowed to express a predominately negative voice in the mainstream only after that voice has been approved by people who are not black--it creates a very scary and unfair situation. And it needs to be changed. Immediately.
"Well, how the hell do you expect me to change anything?"
I'm honestly not sure. All I know is that the status quo upsets me. Perhaps various companies could start by checking to see if they present diverse portrayals of black men to a large mainstream audience and if they are promoting both negative and positive portrayals equally. Perhaps consumers should cut down on the amount of material they purchase which disparages black men. Send a message to these companies.
"But I'm amused by these chickenhead pimpin', Cristal drinkin', gun shootin', racial epithet spoutin', mansion ownin', project cruisin', Bentley drivin', E droppin', weed smokin' goofballs! Don't take them away from me! How come you can keep your big dumb blondes and I have to give up these guys?"
Now, I'm going to be real honest here. I'm not asking you to give these guys up. Truthfully? They amuse me too. My friends and I will watch commercial rap videos and laugh hysterically. Or the best is when a really retarded song comes on Hot 97 (Note: 75% of the songs on Hot 97 are retarded) and we'll all scream "Fake Gangsta Alert! Holla!" and pull our caps down over our head and pretend to be all hard-core until one of us starts giggling and gets pelted with stuffed Pokemon.
So yes, I find all of this "Bling Bling" and "Fake Gangsta" stuff fun and entertaining too, but the negative impact it has had upon the way America perceives black men means that it's time for it to be seriously scaled back. It's bad enough that they've taken over hip-hop. I'll be damned if I let them define what it means to be black any longer. I'll open fire on the next Source Awards before I let that continue to happen. Besides, black men aren't even being given the opportunity to be defined by real black men. Shaft is a character in a movie. Cage is a comic book character. Jay Z is a commercial construct of Sean Carter's record label. And so on. And why does "blackness" need a definition? Can I list aspects of African American culture? Sure. Yet I wouldn't even be able to begin to describe the definitive Black Man. Why? Because there is no definitive Black Man. And even if there was, he damn sure wouldn't be Luke Cage.
"So, you've done all this complaining and moaning. What does this have to do with comics?"
I'm not sure. I've just been thinking about the publicity Cage received and the almost complete and utter absence of mainstream black voices in the comic book industry. And unlike my cousin's situation with Atlantic, mainstream comic companies aren't forcing black writers to change their stories…they simply aren't hiring them to write stories at all.
"Are you trying to say that DC, Marvel, and Image are racist?"
No. I truly believe that all three companies want talented writers, regardless of race. Perhaps that's naïve of me.
"So are black writers just not talented enough to break in?"
Don't be stupid. While DC, Marvel, and Image want talented writers, they also want writers with a celebrity status or connections to someone with industry status. They want someone who will generate a "buzz" (Talent + Buzz = Lots of comics sold). I'm pretty certain that if Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, P. Diddy, or the Rock wanted to write a miniseries, all three companies would be bending over backwards to accommodate them. I'm also pretty sure that a talented black writer with connections to Ellis, or Quesada, or Moore (or any other "Clive Davis of comics") would have little problem "breaking in". I'm even more certain that a talented black writer with no "connections" would never make it in this industry. Ever.
And neither would a white one.
So, do we have a lack of talented black writers? No. Do we have comic companies with racist policies? No. We have a lack of talented black writers with "connections" or celebrity status. Unfortunately, the outcome is still the same--a segregated industry where black people do not have a voice. And no one seems upset by this or wants to do anything about it.
Except me. I'm upset. But like I said, I'm also increasingly jaded and cynical. And so I waver between consumer activism and the urge to say "TOS comics" and go watch cartoons until the moment the entire industry crumbles from inbreeding and I can smugly say "I told you tossers so" while sipping iced coffee and fanning myself with copies of X-Men. It's too easy to just walk away. It's too easy to turn your back--especially when you only halfheartedly believe that any attempt to change things will make an actual difference. Especially when you wholeheartedly believe that the industry doesn't give a damn about you as a reader in the first place.
"So you said all this to say…?"
That even after these four pages (My God, four pages! Is anyone actually going to read this?) I'm still unsure about the way I feel. That as a black woman, an outsider in every possible way in this tiny community, I am always second-guessing my feelings when it comes to issues of race or gender in this industry. Why? Because there is always someone arguing me down and demanding that I admit to being paranoid, or overly sensitive, or to having a chip on my shoulder. And so I have to wonder if I'm making mountains out of molehills. I am overreacting to the fact that entertainers/creators of all races seem to have no problem casually using the N-word in their work? And that consumers of all races seem to have no problem repeating it in conversation? Is the lack of black writers in an industry as small as the comic book industry really that big of a deal? Am I imagining the fact that black female comic book characters seem to get lighter in skin tone as they gain popularity and move to more mainstream mediums such as television and movies? Am I merely being paranoid when I say that it seems as if Cage has gotten much more press than Black Panther? Is this neo-Blaxploitation presentation of black men really as prevalent as I feel it is?
Still, I guess the one positive aspect of my "second-guessing" is that I am not normally one to rant first and ask questions later. I've been mulling over the various topics addressed in this post since Friday. And I could have immediately slipped into "drama-queen mode" and ranted and raved until anyone and everyone at the comic convention had been reduced to tears--but didn't. A friendly conversation over a cup of coffee is a hell of a lot more productive than a shouting match over sketches. And everyone hopefully leaves the table understanding the other side a little bit better.
So I'm taking a deep breath and a step back, damn it. I'm willing to approach Cage with an open mind should anyone lend me the issues (Sorry, I still can't bring myself to buy Cage when there are Dirty Pair TPBs, Angie Stone CDs, and all sorts of other stuff calling to me from the racks.). And I'm extending a virtual cup of coffee to everyone here and a real cup to Azzarello and the young man he was having a conversation with. I want to hear thoughts other than the ones that have been bouncing around inside my own head this weekend, I suppose. And more importantly, I want to know why people have these thoughts.
Still here? Wow. Thanks. That's all. Post, E-mail, whatever.
I’ll be looking for e-mail on this, lots of it. Opposing positions are welcomed, we love to argue around here, especially if arguing might get us somewhere. Once again, my thanks to DigiFemme.